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Freespace Dance's Dan Mueller and Nicholas Sciscione in Donna Scro's "Breathren." Photo copyright Sean Duckett & courtesy Freespace Dance.

Copyright 2011 Nicholas Birns

NEW YORK -- Donna Scro's New Jersey-based Freespace Dance took a provocative step in its self-produced program last week-end at St. Mark's Church, part of Danspace Project's Dance Access, by opening with a strictly musical performance. The force of the two introspective and melancholic, alternately soaring and brooding pieces, Amanda Harberg's "Eagles; Flight" and "The Storm," as performed by Harberg on piano and Brett Deubner on viola, was heightened by the sense of sacred space present in the performance, the seating and performance space being roughly the same as it is for St. Mark's Church services. Having attended many performances in this space over the years, I have seen the audience and performers positioned in virtually very conceivable configuration, but there was something simple and beautiful about the spectators facing the altar, as it were, which was heightened by the austere, uncloying, yet very intense and, with a very small 'r,' romantic music.

The very idea of starting a dance concert with music is audacious. Aside from a traditional overture in a ballet, music's role in contemporary dance is usually as an accompaniment or backdrop, something that is a confirmation of the movement rather than something that orients and calibrates it. Putting the music out front as Freespace did was provocative in several ways. First, it provided a bridge between the performance and outer life, initiating the audience into a distinct frame of mind. The viola as an instrument, with its stately, elegiac texture and lyric concentration, induced a certain pensiveness. This was quickened by Deubner's disciplined joy in his own musicianship. There is a tension between music and nearly all the other arts and humanistic disciplines in that music is so much more measurable. One can diagnose technique or detect a wrong note in a way hard to do in most other media, or at least under modern protocols far more subjective; the standards of competence are far more observable. Listening to music, both the audience and performers become aware of how relative most of our sense of accomplishment is in the arts; we know that something is good, but it is difficult to say how. The music also -- by simply being another element besides the dancers in the space -- made the Freespace audience more aware that we were in the space. The bracing music made it less comfortable to be absorbed in the dance, making the entire experience more thoughtful. Finally, listening to music, as music, at a dance performance is just a different phenomenon than it would be listening to the same music in a concert hall.

Even the beginning of the dance proper involved music being foregrounded in the first piece, the premiere "Breath of the Heart," as a dancer, the winsome Stacey Shivers, wearing a blue dress, gyrated gently towards the back right of the space while Huebner visibly played the viola beside her. This undermined the distinction between the stability of the musician and the creativity of the dance -- conventionally, after all, musicians for ballets and operas are always the properly dressed figures, following orders and maintaining decorum, while the dancers and singers get to embody chaos. Shivers was finally joined by two male-female pairs, JP Ferreri and Lauren Melusky and Dan Mueller and Blair Ritchie. "Breath of the Heart" conveyed romantic convergence and separation, love and loss in a palpable way. Contemporary dance so often avoids the subject of love except to treat it either luridly or parodically. Scro's choreography, at once soulful and athletic, also set up the considerations of gender that were to grow more prominent as the evening wore on.

"Circle one: Fear or Love," choreographed by company member Nicole Smith, featured 11 dancers from the Freespace Dance 2 company, men and women attired in identical maroon shirts and tan pants, giving an impression of both teamwork and conformity. The gender combination made one think both of football players and cheerleaders. At first, the dancers carried one another or entangled themselves with their partners in such closely-tentacled concatenations that it was difficult to tell the number of performers and whether a given shape was an individual or amalgam, this being made harder by the action occurring at the back of the space, far from the viewer. Phillipe Bronchtein's waterfall-like score enhanced the sense of enigmatic stillness. In the second part, the dancers came to the front of the space and became much more athletic and fluid, accompanied by more tonal and assertive music by Janus, and yet one wondered whether the uniforms and gender de-differentiation were meant to suggest freedom, discipline, or both. This is not meant as a criticism; indeed, I liked the implied robotic or metronomic quality of the movements, which did not detract from their literal gracefulness, and made the piece not just a celebration of movement but one evoking the duality of fear and love, contained within the circle of duality of physique and unanimity of raiment, glimpsed in the piece's title. The torsion and propulsiveness of the dancers' movements, the confident if regulated rotation of their limbs and extensions, exuded a sense of composed brio.

The third dance, "From This And Before," was choreographed by Scro to music by Harberg, who herself played the piano. Again, the physical presence of the composer added a very interesting variable. Perhaps I am influenced by reading in the program that Scro has studied and taught yoga, but I sensed a Hindu atmosphere to the piece, a sense of discipline leading to enlightenment and matter yielding to consciousness. Three male-female pairs comprised this dance, each coming to the forefront separately, while the others stood off to the side or lingered in the back. I enjoyed the deftness and rapport of the pairs even as I wondered if the others were ever going to get their moment. Scro's many years dancing with Murray Louis/Alwin Nikolais -- whose company was perhaps the greatest force for continuity in modern dance -- and the exuberant Peter Pucci have given her an ability to think and feel at the same time which is rare for an artist in any medium. She was clearly evoking the reality of thought and feeling, not simply trying to conjure them. The tremendous diversity of movement in this piece and indeed the entire performance was counterpointed by a consistency of mood: meditative, somber without being ponderous, willing to admit joy but hardly frivolous. Many of the movements were quasi-balletic; there were allusions to or remembrances of the traditional five positions in the dancers' actions.

Donna Scro and Nicole Smith in their "Wombed." Photo copyright Sean Duckett and courtesy Freespace Dance.

The last two works explicitly took up the question of gender. Literary and cultural studies have spent much of the past generation debating the idea of 'gendered space' and the existence or non-existence of "separate spheres" for the male and the female. Scro's juxtaposition of the last two dances at once seemed to set up and undermine the gender binary. "Wombed" (choreographed and danced by Scro and Smith), was both in conception and execution very female, as the lithe, poised Smith and the warm, exuberant Scro display respectively the aspirations (ambition, challenge) and responsibilities (motherhood, caring) culturally ascribed to women. This is not set out as an either-or alternative and the sum of the piece is a celebration of life: after all, everyone, male or female, was once wombed.

"Brethren," the third premiere of the evening, was decidedly masculine, with seven male dancers, following the by-now established pattern of starting out at the back of the space and concluding by coming forward, this time directly facing the audience, all seven looking outward confrontationally. This epitomized the aggressiveness and confidence culturally ascribed to men. Emphasizing what Scro, in the talkback afterward, called "male energy" was an interesting move. It is indeed novel to foreground the male body in a medium where femininity has been privileged and fetishized. A masculinity that everywhere else in society is basically the norm becomes, in the context of the female-centered space of modern dance, quite radical. The seven men were imposing physically and, depending on the situation, could either be guys you would not want to tumble with or people you would be glad to have on your sports team. Regarding such dancers, much like having the musicians on stage and in our faces, shook me out of the dance-audience rut. One of the real choreographic accomplishments of "Brethren" was to kind of de-gender the body, to present it as form and shape and movement, particularly because, as Scro also said, the mixed-up partnerings in the 'Fear or Love' piece had decentered the idea of gender anyway, and all the dancers had shown the tremendous elasticity of the body, the way movement can redefine the body and make it a new medium more or less separate from what we know it as. I understand the idea of letting male energy out of the box, but more deeply the entire sequence of dances reinforced how supple the body is as a medium, and how potentially interchangeable bodies are if the pattern and -- as here -- the music is sufficiently compelling. Masculinity and femininity contributed to the enjoyment of the evening, but they did not define it. Scro's company is well named: it has defined a free space where elements of art -- sounds, contexts, forms, bodies -- can generatively combine, inspire wonder, and, especially, be provocative.

Nicholas Birns is a literary and cultural critic living in New York. His web site is

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